Moon Studios, 2015
a quickened zephyr
rekindles the throng of reeds
seasoned mills yet turn
To say that Ori and the Blind Forest is the first game of the PS4/Xbox One console generation to justify all the next-gen hardware hype sounds hyperbolic until you actually see it in action. As if the hand-painted environments were not already vibrant enough, the world is further brought to life by luscious animation and evocative use of parallax effects.
All this sensory splendor would be for naught if the machinery beneath the canvas were not as precise as the game is pretty. The titular character Ori feels light and responsive to the touch--which is good thing, since the platforming is often quite punishing. Any frustrations resulting from trial-and-error platforming are theoretically alleviated by a save-anywhere ability that costs energy to activate. Energy can only be replenished by pickups and shrines, thus introducing a risk/reward dynamic to checkpoints.
It's a somewhat puzzling approach to the sub-genre for me, since I remember dying in Super Metroid very little. Zebes was laid out in such a way as to gently nudge the player in another direction if they tried to go somewhere they shouldn't be. Ori, on the other hand, squashes the player with impunity like Meat Boy even on the critical path. For instance, the lack of checkpoints during the first escape sequence (which the game features in lieu of boss battles) dampens whatever dramatic momentum the scene might have had.
Another area where the game doesn't quite stand out to the same degree is the overall structure. As mentioned, it hearkens back to exploration-based action platformers such as Metroid, Ori adheres to the pleasantly familiar formula of an environment that gradually opens up as the player character gains more abilities, thereby augmenting the game's traversal mechanics.
Although it's certainly familiar structurally-speaking, Ori diverges from its predecessors thematically. Whereas Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night were about amassing power in order to defeat an ultimate adversary, Ori's themes of hope and redemption in the face of blind hatred preclude any such end-game encounter. Despite the occasional gate that can only be opened after defeating a particular creature, the game eschews traditional boss encounters in favor of the aforementioned escape sequences. Even by the end of the game, where Ori has gained every possible ability, he is still utterly at the mercy of the antagonist--and so Ori's mechanical arc is more about surviving long enough to restore balance than regaining lost power in order to conquer an enemy.
Yes, in many ways the "metroidvania" structure feels timeworn--but perhaps it's moot in light of the way Ori subverts the narrative of its predecessors while remaining thematically coherent. Just be sure to look twice before leaping.